Criticism of Mormonism/Books/Mormonism 101/Chapter 4

Response to claims made in "Chapter 4: Preexistence and the Second Estate"


A FairMormon Analysis of: Mormonism 101
A work by author: Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson

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Response to claim: 67-68 - President Joseph F. Smith considered birth control "one of the greatest crimes of the world today," and David O. McKay considered it "insidious"

The author(s) of Mormonism 101 make(s) the following claim:
The authors claim "For years Mormons were urged to have as many children as possible in order to make a way for these spirit children to be taught the proper course that would return them to their heavenly parents." The note that in December 1998 that the Salt Lake Tribune "announced that the LDS Church had issued a new Handbook of Instructions that no longer compelled Mormon couples to have as many children as possible."

The authors note that President Joseph F. Smith considered birth control "one of the greatest crimes of the world today," and David O. McKay considered it "insidious."

The authors conclude that "[w]hat once was sin in the Mormon Church is now permissible."Author's sources: *Brigham Young, Discourses of Brigham Young, 197.

  • "LDS Handbook Says Family Size Up to Couple, God," Salt Lake Tribune, 5 December 1998, p. A1.
  • Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 2:88-89.
  • David O. McKay, Conference Report (October 1947), 119; David O. McKay, Gospel Ideals, comp. G. Homer Durham, 487.
  • Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 2:87, 89.

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: This claim is based upon correct information - The author is providing knowledge concerning some particular fact, subject, or event

It should be noted that doctrine (such as premortal existence) and policy (such as birth control) are two separate issues. Any denomination's policies can change over time, without affecting the underlying doctrines upon which those policies may be predicated. Unfortunately, the authors do their readers a disservice by confusing policy with doctrine. Such disservice does nothing but misinform the reader unschooled in LDS philosophy.

Response to claim: 68-69 - Those who believe in the Bible cannot believe in life before life

The author(s) of Mormonism 101 make(s) the following claim:
The assertion in this section is that those who believe in the Bible cannot believe in life before life. Such an assertion is evidenced through statements such as the following:
  • "…such teachings are perplexing to the Bible-believing Christian…"
  • "Mormons … are hard-pressed to find any biblical support for the very idea of preexistence."
  • "The Word of God certainly does not support the LDS concept that all humans are literal children of God."
The authors finish the section with the challenging statement "Until Mormons can show better proof of humanity's eternal existence, Christians are unable to agree with this extrabiblical teaching."[1]

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: This claim contains mistakes and/or errors - The author has stated erroneous or incorrect information or misinterpreted their sources

Such a challenge, of course, should not go unanswered. In fact, had the authors done adequate research, they would have known that such challenges have been answered many times in the past.[2] In other words, the authors are not providing new information or even a new angle on existing information. Instead, assertions previously made—and previously answered—are being made again.

Question: Is the Mormon doctrine of a "premortal existence" pagan, unchristian, or unbiblical, and therefore false?

Some Christians present alternate interpretations of selected scriptures that fit with their preconceived notions concerning where we came from, yet, they cannot really answer where we came from

Without an understanding of where we came from, it is difficult to understand why we are here and where we are going. While the teachings of sectarian critics may not answer these questions, we are fortunate to live in a time when the answers have been fully revealed by prophets, as in times of old.

The assertion made by critics of Mormonism is that those who believe in the Bible cannot believe in life before life. Such an assertion is evidenced through statements such as the following:

  • "…such teachings are perplexing to the Bible-believing Christian…"
  • "Mormons … are hard-pressed to find any biblical support for the very idea of preexistence."
  • "The Word of God certainly does not support the LDS concept that all humans are literal children of God."

One specific critical work issues the challenging statement "Until Mormons can show better proof of humanity's eternal existence, Christians are unable to agree with this extrabiblical teaching."[3]

Such a challenge, of course, should not go unanswered. Such challenges have been answered many times in the past, though those who raise the issue rarely acknowledge or address responses already made.[4]

The pre-mortal existence of Jesus Christ, Savior of the world is abundantly testified to in scripture

The pre-mortal existence of Jesus Christ, Savior of the world is abundantly testified to in scripture, both ancient and modern, and nothing in the chapter at hand gives rise to any question concerning the acceptance of the doctrine of Christ's ante-mortal existence. We will leave it to the reader to ponder whether Christ was not just our spiritual pattern, but also a literal pattern of the path that each of us tread as we make our way from our home with God, through this earth life, and back once more to the eternal realms.


Question: Are Mormons the only ones who believe in the concept of a life before this one?

Many people see this mortal life as nothing more than a temporary way station on some cosmic journey

Many people who are not LDS are entirely comfortable with the concept of a life before this life. Many see this mortal life as nothing more than a temporary way station on some cosmic journey. Consider a small portion of a poem by William Wordsworth:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy![5]

A common question faced by parents, holding their newborn child for the first time, is where this tiny miracle comes from

The origin of the child's physical body is obvious, but the beginnings of personality evident at the earliest stages of child development are easiest explained through an understanding that our spirits—which make up our personality—do not have their beginnings in the womb. Indeed, they hearken back to an earlier time, as so aptly stated by Wordsworth.

In addition, many within the Christian community are comfortable making reference to our "immortal spirit" or our "eternal spirit." Logic dictates that if something designated as eternal has a beginning, then it is not really eternal. Likewise, if a spirit can be imagined to have a beginning, then it can just as easily be imagined to have an end. To accept the concept of a beginning without an end is just as illogical as thinking that a circle has an endpoint.

As appealing as the concept of a premortal life may be to some, to others the idea smacks of emotionalism, wishful thinking, simplistic superstition, or outright heresy. Common sense ideas, however, often have their roots in deeper doctrinal concepts.


Question: Did the early Christian fathers express a belief in a pre-mortal life?

Many scholars (both LDS and non-LDS) find strong evidence for a belief in premortal life in the writings and teachings of the early Christian fathers

It is certainly true that the LDS are not the only people to believe in a premortal life. In fact, many scholars (both LDS and non-LDS) find strong evidence for a belief in premortal life in the writings and teachings of the early Christian fathers. While these teachings may have been dropped from the rote canon of the church, there is little doubt that they were understood and espoused from the earliest recorded times.

For instance, Clement of Alexandria, commenting on the scriptural passage in Jeremiah 1:5 (which is also addressed more fully in the next section), generalized the doctrine as having universal application. He wrote:

"…the Logos is not to be despised as something new, for even in Jeremiah the Lord says, 'Say not "I am too young," for before I formed thee in the womb I knew thee, and before thou camest forth from thy mother I sanctified thee.' It is possible that in speaking these things the prophet is referring to us, as being known to God as faithful before the foundation of the world."[6]

Another church father that spoke directly to the idea of a premortal existence was Origen of Alexandria (ca. AD 185–254). Writing in the third century, he stated a belief that differences evident among men on earth were attributable to differences in rank and glory attained by those men as premortal angels. According to Origen, God could not be viewed as "no respecter of persons" without such a premortal existence. In fact, if the differences of men on earth were not related in some way to our premortal condition, then God could be viewed as arbitrary, capricious, and unjust. Origen felt that just as there would a judgment after this life, that a sort of judgment had already taken place based on our premortal merit, with the result being the station to which we were appointed in this life. As an example of this concept supported in the Bible, Origen referred to the Old Testament story of Jacob being preferred over Esau. Why was this so? According to Origen, because "we believe that he was even then chosen by God because of merits acquired before this life."[7]

Belief in a premortal life was not confined to various early church fathers. In the course of his writings the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote about the beliefs of the Essenes. He reported they believed "that the souls are immortal, and continue for ever." He further related that the Essenes believed that the souls of men "are united to their bodies as in prisons" and that when the spirits are set free they are "released from a long bondage" and ascend heavenward with great rejoicing.[8]Josephus' description of Essene doctrine has surely taken on greater validity in light of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran. Together these records provide primary evidence that contemporaries of Christ and the apostles believed in a premortal life—a belief that is validated by the Bible itself, as discussed in the following section.

These historical citations are just the tip of the iceberg. Serious students of the topic can find additional information that verifies that ancient Christians and Jews understood and accepted the concept of premortal existence. While knowing that the concept has historical roots does not prove the concept to be true, it certainly counteracts the fallacious claim that the teachings of the LDS on the topic are new, heretical, or dangerous.


Questions: What biblical evidence is there for a pre-mortal existence?

Critics cite three scriptures, asserting that the Latter-day Saints use them as biblical proofs for the concept of a premortal life

In the course of proffering a refutation of the LDS doctrine of a premortal life, critics cite three scriptures, asserting that the LDS use them as biblical proofs for the concept of a premortal life. The cited scriptures are Jeremiah 1:5; Job 38:4,7; and Ecclesiastes 12:7. The extent of the critics' rebuttal of these scriptures is to contend that the LDS interpretations are incorrect, and offer differing interpretations. A deeper examination of those scriptures, along with the interpretations of them, is certainly in order.

The Case of Jeremiah: "Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee"

In the case of Jeremiah 1:5, the critics assert that the scripture is a reference to God's foreknowledge, and not to a personal knowledge of humans. Granting that God has limitless foreknowledge does not preclude a personal knowledge of individual humans, however. The critics do not refute the possibility of such knowledge, instead opting to say (in effect) "No, that can't be it." Such assertions, while they may be comforting to the critics and sufficient in their own estimation, do not preclude the acceptability of the LDS interpretation of the scripture at hand.

It is hard to deny the specificity of words used in the Jeremiah passage:

"Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations."

Notice three key words here: knew, sanctified, and ordained. The wording itself indicates that God literally knew Jeremiah and was familiar with his spiritual attitudes and abilities. In addition, God sanctified Jeremiah, a description not of foreknowledge but of an actual event with participants present. The process of sanctification, or setting something apart as holy, by definition requires that something (such as Jeremiah himself) be present to be set apart. Likewise, the act of ordaining a person—in this case a prophet—requires that the individual be present. These acts—sanctification and ordination—are not mental exercises, but actual events.

Indeed, other modern Christian scholars have chosen to acknowledge the claim that Jeremiah 1:5 speaks of more than mere foreknowledge. In reference to the concept of premortal life, William de Arteaga stated:

"This question was hotly debated by Christians of late antiquity, and the faction of the Church which was bitterly opposed to preexistence gained the upper hand. By the sixth century belief in preexistence was declared heresy. All of this is quite astonishing in view of the clear and repeated biblical evidence for preexistence."[9]

The event referred to in the sixth century was an edict by Pope Vigilius in AD 543 that rejected the doctrine of preexistence taught by Origen of Alexandria. Historical records indicate that the edict, called Anathemas Against Origen, was actually penned by the Roman emperor, Justinian,[10] and signed by the pope and other bishops present at the Second Council of Constantinople.[11] Tales of the relationships between early popes and Roman emperors make for great reading. The relationship between Pope Vigilius and Emperor Justinian is no exception. Many records indicate that the anathemas declared against Origen had their roots in political posturing regarding doctrines of the early church. Regardless, many scholars regard the papal edict in AD 543 as the reason that the concept of preexistence is generally considered extrabiblical today. It is clear from the record that before this time the concept was freely taught by many within the church.

The Case of Job: ""Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?"

When it comes to the trials of Job and the discussions that God had with Job, it seems that the critics are actually the ones taking scripture out of context. They are quick to cite the rhetorical nature of the questions posed to Job, but slow to understand the concepts being conveyed by the Lord through such literary means. Just take a look at Job 38:1-7:

"Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said,

"Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?

"Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.

"Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.

"Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?

"Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof;

"When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"

In the course of reproving Job, the Lord indicates several key pieces of knowledge. First of all, in verse four the Lord asks "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?" Such a question, by its very nature, implies that Job was somewhere. Why would God ask Job a question which was not instructive, and why would the ancient scribes include the discourse if something could not be learned? The critics indicate that the assertion that Job had to be somewhere (thereby supporting preexistence) presupposes that preexistence is a fact. Such circular reasoning can be just as easily applied to the position taken by the critics: one can only interpret the verse as saying that Job was not present when God laid the foundations of the earth if one presupposes that the spirits of men had no premortal life.

Thus, both interpretations can be seen to be on an equal footing when the singular verse is examined. The Lord, however, does not leave the matter alone for long. In further questioning Job, he asks (in essence) where Job was "when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy." Here, again, is the assertion that Job had to be somewhere. Not just Job, however, but the morning stars and the sons of God. And these were not silent participants in the framing of the world, but singers and shouters, indicating they were possessed of independent capabilities of thought and action. Taken together, these two verses provide a strong case for the concept of a premortal life.

The Case of Ecclesiastes: "the spirit shall return unto God who gave it"

Finally, the critics indicate that Latter-day Saints see Ecclesiastes 12:7 as a reference to "the second leg of a 'round trip' passage." While this may be an amusing way to discredit the LDS concept, it is not nearly as easy to avoid the specific language of the verse:

"Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it."

The simple question remains as to how something could return to a point it had not been to before. If the scripture is best translated, as the authors assert, as only having reference to returning to a God who created the spirit,[12] then the only difference between their understanding and that of the LDS is a matter of timing. We believe that God created the spirit of man—just that it was done long before the mortal birth. Either way, the spirit still returns home to God.

But there is a deeper problem with the interpretation of this scripture offered by the critics. By rejecting the concept of premortal existence, the authors swallow the concept that the spirit of man springs into existence at some time between conception and birth.[13] If the scripture is to be interpreted literally, and as a parallel linguistic construction, then dust returns to dust, as it was without life, and spirit returns to its former uncreated condition, meaning without life as well. Thus, the problem is that the scripture could just as easily be used to justify a doctrine of there being no life after death.


Notes

  1. It is interesting to note that the authors presume to speak for the entire panoply of Christianity with all its myriad denominations and sects. Verbiage such as this also accentuates the assumption on the part of the authors that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are not Christian. For an excellent discussion of this topic, see Stephen E. Robinson in Are Mormons Christian? (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1991).
  2. For other treatments of this topic, see relevant discussions by Richard R. Hopkins in Biblical Mormonism (Bountiful, Utah: Horizon Publishers, 1994); Brent L. Top in The Life Before (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988); Truman G. Madsen in Eternal Man (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1966); Joseph Fielding Smith in Man, His Origin and Destiny (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1954); Boyd K. Packer in Our Father's Plan (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1984); and Barry R. Bickmore in Restoring the Ancient Church (Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research, 1999).
  3. Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, Mormonism 101. Examining the Religion of the Latter-day Saints (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000), 68-69. ( Index of claims ) This wiki page was initially prepared as a direct response to the book, though it has since been expanded. (It is interesting to note that McKeever and Johnson presume to speak for the entire panoply of Christianity with all its myriad denominations and sects. Verbiage such as this also accentuates the assumption on the part of the authors that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are not Christian.) For a book length discussion of this charge, see Stephen E. Robinson, Are Mormons Christians? (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1993). off-site FairMormon link.
  4. For other treatments of this topic, see relevant discussions in: Richard R. Hopkins Biblical Mormonism (Bountiful, Utah: Horizon Publishers, 1994).;Brent L. Top The Life Before (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988).; Truman G. Madsen in Eternal Man (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1966).; Joseph Fielding Smith in Man, His Origin and Destiny (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1954).; Boyd K. Packer in Our Father's Plan (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1984).; Barry R. Bickmore, Restoring the Ancient Church: Joseph Smith and Early Christianity (Redding, CA: Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, 1999)..
  5. William Wordsworth (1770–1850), Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.
  6. Clement of Alexandria, in Patrologiae… Graeca, 8:321, as cited by Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd edition, (Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), 228.
  7. Origen, Peri Archon, in Patrologiae… Graeca 9:230–231, as cited by Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd edition, (Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), 230. It is not the purpose here to debate or justify Origen's belief in a judgment before coming to Earth. Instead, this evidence is presented in substantiation of the historical acceptability—indeed, the historical teaching—of the concept of premortal life.
  8. Wars of the Jews, Chapter VIII, 11. translated by William Whiston, A.M., in The Complete Works of Josephus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1981), 478.
  9. William de Arteaga, Past Life Visions: A Christian Exploration (New York: Seabury Press, 1983), 127, as quoted by Brent L. Top The Life Before (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988), 25.
  10. Justinian was not a nice man regarding those who disagreed with him theologically. One author reports the following concerning the emperor: "Savage penalties were more loudly advertised by the impatient autocracy of the emperors, to offset the irremediable venality and favoritism of their servants. The means of persecution available to the church thus had more of an edge. Especially so under Justinian (527–565). A brutally energetic, or energetically brutal, ruler enjoying a very long reign, he pursued the goal of religious uniformity as no one before him. … He did not see it as murder if the victims did not share his own beliefs. …Those he disagreed with he was likely to mutilate if he didn't behead or crucify them..." [Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (Yale University Press, 1997), 26-27.]
  11. This Council, sometimes referred to as the Fifth Ecumenical Council, was held in AD 553. It was the council at which the anathemas, penned and signed some ten years earlier, were formally adopted. The official document labeled Origen's teachings heresy and forbid them being taught in the church.
  12. Note, however, that the wording used in the scripture is "gave," not "created." This same translation carries not only in the King James version of the Bible, but in the Amplified, New American Standard, New International, and New Revised Standard versions, as well.
  13. Exact timing is not critical; the issue is whether life exists before life.